Duke's Cutcliffe: 'I believe in my heart of hearts, this team is the deepest, most talented team we've had at Duke yet'
The ACC’s coaches and selected players converging on Charlotte for the ACC Kickoff media event this week means practice isn’t far away.
Duke’s players and coaches will reconvene on campus July 30 and hold their first official practice of the new season July 31.
Coming off a 4-8 season where they won just one ACC game, the Blue Devils need to turn things around to return to a bowl game.
Here are three things to know about the Blue Devils heading into the season:
A rare healthy offseason -- so far
While making bowl games in four consecutive seasons, Duke suffered personnel losses nearly every summer that made that accomplishment even more impressive.
Duke annually entered camp with a projected starter already sidelined -- from wide receiver Blair Holliday and tight end Braxton Deaver to linebacker Kelby Brown and quarterback Thomas Sirk -- and a real need to find a suitable replacement in a hurry.
With practice a couple of weeks away, that hasn’t happened this season.
Last June, two months after he was honored for his strong play in spring football, redshirt freshman wide receiver Keyston Fuller needed surgery to repair a broken bone in his knee. Then on the first day of practice, highly touted freshman wide receiver Scott Bracey injured his hamstring and had to take a redshirt season.
By contrast, both players have had strong offseasons and appear ready to impact the offense positively this season.
“Both of them look great and they’ve had big, big summers,” Duke sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones said. “It will be great to watch that competition in the fall.”
Depth at wide receiver should boost Duke’s offense
Duke needs Fuller, Bracey and the rest of the wide receivers healthy to get its offense churning out points again.
Last season, with Jones starting as a redshirt freshman, Duke averaged 23.3 points per game — 11th in the ACC. In each of the previous four seasons, while making four bowl trips, Duke was a top-five offense in the league each season while averaging no fewer than 31.5 points per game.
Jones is confident his receiving corps is a capable of getting Duke the extra touchdown per game at least -- to boot the average back into the 30s.
Junior TJ Rahming should be a top target again after leading the team with 70 catches for 742 yards last season. Juniors Johnathan Lloyd and Chris Taylor both played in 12 games last season, and will need to step up their production. Lloyd caught 34 passes for 301 yards while Taylor had 29 receptions for 315 yards.
Freshman Aaron Young, said to have the best hands of the group, will get a chance to improve on the 11 catches he made over 10 games last season.
Having Bracey and Fuller healthy only adds to the array of targets for Jones.
“It’s just deep,” Jones said. “That’s exciting for us as an offense. It’s just depth that we haven’t had in the past. Experienced depth is a big thing for us.”
Duke desperately needs a reliable kicker
Freshman AJ Reed arrived last season with the plan in place for him to be Duke’s kicker for four seasons. When he went 3 of 10 on field goals, failing to make any after Oct. 1, Duke coach David Cutcliffe developed an alternate plan. Reed enters his sophomore season as a reserve needing to win the job back.
Punter Austin Parker will compete with a group of walk-ons to replace Reed as the team’s kicker. Freshman Jack Driggers looks like the best of the walk-ons, with a strong leg that could net him the kickoff duties at the minimum. The other newcomer at kicker is freshman Jackson Hubbard.
Sophomore kicker Tim Skapek is most likely slated to handling the holding duties.
Senior Will Kline handled kickoff duties late last season and will compete to do that again.
“We had a tough year and we all are very aware of that,” Cutcliffe said during the offseason. “It’s fair to say you don’t look just within when you have problems. We’re always willing to create some competitive circumstances right now and that’s what we need. We can’t be successful with the way we performed a year ago.”